No news is foreign: The future of the foreign desk

by Ali M Latifi

In 2010, when the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Manama and, eventually, Tripoli, Sana’a and Damascus were erupting in protest, I was in DC as a graduate student of International Media at the American University.

Like so many others the world over, I followed what would become known as the “Arab Spring” through social media and Al Jazeera English.

But I was also able to see hundreds of Tunisians, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Libyans, Yemenis and Syrians gather outside the White House, Department of State, Supreme Court and Egyptian embassy to raise their voices in defence of a very personal and important cause.

I saw men, women and children who looked and sounded like me demanding the fundamental right to self-determination for their own countries; their own lives.

I may have been an Afghan-born, US-educated fledgling journalist, but I could relate to their struggle.

It was then that I realised: no news is foreign. At its heart, every story is about people.

But a strange thing happened.

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Instead of overwhelming praise and admiration for the millions marching and risking their lives and livelihoods the world over, I was shocked to see Twitter and Facebook – two California-based companies – being given credit for the previously unimaginable mass mobilisations of people.

Not even an International Investigative Reporting class, where our weeks-long study of the Watergate investigation went on uninterrupted, was safe from the misrepresentation.

I suddenly saw my request for a visit by Ayman Moheldin, an Egyptian-American journalist who had been covering the uprisings in Egypt for Al Jazeera English (“AJE”), turn into an argument with the professor.

“Who?” the professor asked, before launching into an argument on whether the overarching narrative of the mass movements was that millions were risking their lives on the streets for democracy, or the power of US-created social networking and microblogging platforms.

Platforms that, until then, had largely been making headlines for a bet between Ashton Kutcher and CNN.

Ironically, despite my professor’s ignorance to Moheldin’s reporting, the intrepid journalist eventually ended up in a Washington Post list of seven people to follow for Egypt news and analysis.

In the four years since the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself alight in Ben Arous at the end of 2010, I have constantly found myself immersed in similar debates about representation and ownership of a story.

While my own stock as an Afghan-American journalist working for various international media outlets (including AJE) rose and fell, I found myself constantly wondering why we are not able to present our own stories to the world.

Why do we need foreigners to tell the stories of our own lands when so many of us are fully capable of doing it ourselves, I have repeatedly wondered.

Over the last five years I have seen young Afghan journalists – male and female – travel across the provinces to interview everyone from high-level officials and local strongmen to “ordinary” people leading lives not unlike Bouazizi’s, only to have their names appear at the bottom of a story as having “contributed to” the reporting.

Why?

It is in this light that I read a recent entry in The New Global Journalism: Foreign Correspondence in Transition, a report from Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, positing the “future of international news.”

In the chapter, author Anup Kaphle envisioned a future where the foreign desks of major English-language international media – faced with mass closures of foreign bureaus – were producing mainly short, conversational, blog-style entries that could be authored in New York or Washington.

It’s an interesting idea. One which AJE’s own pioneering live blogs, based almost entirely in Doha, proved worthwhile during the so-called Arab Spring.

But I would like to suggest an alternate approach. One that would foster the kind of atmosphere that I was so astounded by in my three years as part of AJE’s online team.

A system that would see talented young journalists like the Pakistani-British Asad Hashim or South African Azad Essa, two remarkable talents I was in awe of, present stories from their own regions (if not their countries).

And the success stories behind such a model are not limited to men.

Last year, Sherine Tadros, the British-Egyptian journalist, become the lead Middle East reporter for Sky News. Tardros was one of only two English-language journalists (the other was Moheldin) to cover the 2008-2009 conflict in Gaza from inside the strip, and later the so-called “Arab Spring” for AJE. Her appointment was an achievement that presented a marked departure from the news business’ long-time white, male-driven status quo.

This model could easily be applied to Afghanistan, where for the last 14 years the booming media industry has been seen as one of the successes following the US invasion of 2001. Currently, more than 1,000 news organizations operate in Afghanistan, up from about 15 during the Taliban years.

Some may consider this idea radical, but to me it’s a merely a natural progression of what has been taking place for decades.

It wouldn’t eliminate the role of foreign journalists.

Instead, it would transform their role into one of aids who could still report on stories they feel are important while simultaneously serving to help local stringers and reporters enhance English-language skills that would see them eventually take over the reporting from their own nations as the foreign journalists are dispatched to new locations.

I am in no way oblivious to my own privilege as a US-educated Afghan immigrant whose family was able to escape Soviet occupation along with his family in the 1980s – someone who went on to write for AJE, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and various other media outlets.

I know that in many ways I am not representative of the typical Afghan in Logar and Jalalabad, where my family come from.

But I have also seen young Afghan journalists, who spent the two decades in which I was in the US living in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, run circles around me with their dedication to telling the stories that matter to them.

One need only look at the thousands of Twitter followers of journalists like Ehsanullah Amiri and Habib Khan Totakhil (WSJ), Ahmad Mukhtar (CBS), Mujib Mashal (AJE, Time and NYT) and Sana Safi (BBC) have gained over the years as proof that Afghan journalists, like their foreign colleagues, possess valuable insights and information on the country they come from.

They are brilliant journalists in their own right, so why not transform the system into one that sees them realise their obvious potential, and be afforded many of the opportunities that my darker blue passport has made me entitled to simply because my family was able to escape the war.

The precedent is clearly already there.

This potential model would also challenge a notion a Pakistani-Canadian female journalist, Naheed Mustafa, expressed to me while I was a graduate student in DC. Namely, the unspoken understanding that: “if a white reporter does it, its’ objective [but] if an ‘ethnic’ reporter does it, it’s biased.”

So now, the only question left is, why not?

Read More: Broken News: How To Save International Bureaus

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Ali M Latifi is a Kabul-born, California-raised journalist. He has traveled to 10 Afghan provinces and reported on migrants in Greece and Turkey. He has also appeared on radio and TV in Washington, Doha, London and Cape Town. Find him on twitter @alibomaye

This article was edited by Sunili Govinnage

 

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1 reply

  1. While I am disgusted by the arrogance shown by your professor, I am not surprised. The ivory tower is tall and heavily guarded and its inhabitants often have no clue about what is going on right under their noses. Social media was never *intended* for use by activists but WE the People all over the world have taken social media and repurposed it for our own! That is a far cry from the “passive masses” perspective that many university professors have. I am far from the only person who has far more faith in citizen-journalists than I do in the mainstream media.

    Like

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